Beware of holiday traditions hijacked by food fakery

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December 8, 2011

It’s December! A month overflowing with shopping, family get-togethers and parties. It’s a season  filled with warmth, joy, and more chemical-laden, unnatural, test-tube, bad food than any other time of the year.

Like Thanksgiving, the season to be jolly tempts us with bad food choices and shortcut goodies that somehow make their way into our shopping carts. So if you want to keep the holidays healthy as well as happy, steer clear of the Food Grinch and his brightly colored assortment of chemical concoctions.

Hold the fruitcake
While this seasonable “treat” may be the butt of many jokes, the fact is that somebody – a lot of somebodys, in fact – must be eating it, since its annual appearing in supermarkets is as dependable as Santa’s is at the mall. But as hard as I looked, I couldn’t find a fruitcake that wasn’t made with a lengthy list of inadvisable ingredients. And that includes the highly regarded Trappist Abbey Fruitcake, “made by the Trappist monks of Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Layfayette, Oregon “ These monks sure must be busy each year adding just the right amounts of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives to their fruitcake recipe!  The Entenmann’s supermarket fruitcake (which for ten bucks, isn’t exactly cheap) was just as additive-laden, but did note on the box, that it is “baked fresh daily,” which I found interesting, considering that its shelf life doesn’t expire until next summer.

“Homemade dessert” identity theft
Since homemade treats are as much a part of holiday tradition as shopping, it’s only natural that they would fall prey to food identity theft scams. The result has been a potpourri of ready-made cookie mixes, pie crusts and refrigerated dough products that are often passed off as “homemade” simply because they require a minimal amount of preparation.

Pillsbury, for example, offers numerous holiday refrigerator cookie products, one being ready-to-bake Snow Man shaped cookies containing bleached flour, partially hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors and colors.   That’s hardly the kind of stuff one would expect in a “homemade” cookie. A much better choice (especially if you’re making cookies as a gift) is the baking mix from Arrowhead Mills, or my personal favorite, Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix (a gluten-free product that’s the best and easiest all-around base for any kind of cookie or muffin you’re in the mood to make, even if you’re not on a gluten-free diet).

Yet another example of “homemade dessert identity theft” is that age-old holiday treat, the pie. There is no reason to fall prey to chemical-filled ready-to-bake pie crusts such as the ones Pillsbury floods the market with. A hideous concoction containing partially hydrogenated lard, BHA and BHT, more preservatives AND artificial colors, this “time-saving treat” is an insult to the time-honored tradition of the homemade pie (and unfortunately is also said to be “America’s #1 pie crust”).

If you don’t have the time or patience to make pie crust from scratch, there are many organic, and (really) natural crusts to choose from, such as the offerings from Wholly Wholesome. With three organic, ready-to-bake crusts available from this one company alone, there is no excuse to bring something like the above-mentioned Pillsbury product into your home. But you don’t necessarily need to go organic to find a graham crust without all those additives, an example being the Heartland crust we found at our local supermarket made from “normal” food ingredients.

Beware of fake fillings
Now that you’ve got the crust part done right, you don’t want to ruin it with a chemically contrived canned filling. The popular Duncan Hines brand Comstock, for instance, contains HFCS, artificial colors, and “color retention” preservatives.  For a far more “honest-to-goodness” pie, you can always  buy some nothing-added frozen fruit, find a ready-made filling with decent enough ingredients such as Grandma Hoerner’s “big slice” fillings, or go with the season and simply slice some real apples yourself.

Avoid turkey traps…
As with Thanksgiving, if a turkey is on your menu steer clear of anything called “deep basted” (or any similar terminology), which is simply a more appetizing-sounding way of saying the turkey was injected with numerous chemicals, flavor enhancers and other ingredients you wouldn’t want at your table.

…and gravy shortcuts
Ready-made gravies are some of the absolute worst products you can buy ingredient-wise, for the holidays or at any other time. In both its powdered and canned varieties, ready-made gravy seems to offer the biggest mega-dose of monosodium glutamate in its various forms. Knorr Roasted Turkey Flavored Gravy mix takes the prize for having five ingredients with free glutamic acid as well as the better-known ingredient monosodium glutamate. The J.R. Watkins “Natural” Products Roasted Turkey Gourmet Gravy (inspired by Grandma Watkins, no less) is another glutamate feast. Gravy is basically just stock or broth that is thickened and reduced by cooking. If gravy is a must on your menu, try this easy recipe from Whole Foods Markets, and leave the monosodium gluamate to Grandma Watkins.

Just remember that there are all kinds of unhealthy concoctions out there disguised as  traditional and homemade goodies. Make this the kind of December that has no place for them on your holiday table.